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Minimalist of All Minimalists

Since December, Convivium contributor Breanne Valerie has been adopting one of St. Benedict’s principles each month and reporting on its impact on her personal life. This month she goes back to the roots of minimalism as a spiritual tool, guiding us beyond this principle’s Instagrammable possibilities, and revealing the heart of the practice – to lead us back to God.

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Minimalist of All Minimalists April 10, 2018  |  By Breanne Valerie
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Minimalism far preceded the infamous minimalist trend we see rampant among millennials and Instagrammers today. St. Benedict saw the value of living a minimalist life centuries before minimalism became a "lifestyle choice." Today’s minimalist trend attempts to make a way for us to focus on experiences and people instead of material things. It has become easily twisted into clean lines, expensive ethical clothing, and Scandinavian design. Benedict's rule of owning nothing has a different purpose than today's trends, and arguably one that lends itself to greater life and flourishing – not just the individual but the world around them. It is one that removes distraction to find the infinite, the God of the Universe. We so easily hide God in plain sight simply because we have our minds wrapped up in worldly and material things.

Benedict understood this reality. The reality that when we crowd our lives with worldly materials we prevent ourselves from communing with God in a way that is unfettered, in a way that makes space for the poor and those who have none to have some. He called Benedictines to live within what was needed: no more, no less. Nothing was to be owned. Nothing to be ill taken care of. Nothing to be of distraction. Everything to be simple, so as to not take away from ultimate focus of life, God and his great goodness. Benedict’s rules of minimalism, specifically the rules of Monastics & Private Ownership, Distribution of Goods According to Need, and the rule of Clothing and Footwear, outline the importance of simplicity in the name of focusing on what is good and right.

I have forever been a "purger." A purger in the sense that I hold very little sentimentality for most things in life and have little problem getting rid of things. My family used to bug me whenever I was looking for something by saying "you probably threw it out or gave it away." I was constantly getting rid of things, whether it be clothing, trinkets, old cards, or childhood crafts. I liked the feeling of not being overwhelmed by things. In a world that was so anxiety-ridden, getting rid of things was like cleansing the soul.

While very few things in my life hold significant sentimental value to me, I still struggle with the balance of desiring material possessions and not wanting them to control my life. I often get rid of things quickly because of buyer’s remorse, and then end up refilling my life with other things just as quick. I have always been unsettled with this cycle. My soul has never felt truly at rest when I have too much or when I am pining after the latest and greatest trend.

What I appreciate and long for in Benedict’s rules is the detachment from worldly things. The words in 1 John 2:15 capture what is essential to Bendict’s call to shirk the things of this world: "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." The ultimate purpose of the Benedictine order was not to tout a certain aesthetic to show ones piety, it was to have just what is needed to make room for the love of the Father. This is important because minimalism to us moderns has become a consumerist trend in and of itself. Minimalism and simplicity can too often turn into getting rid of the old only to replace it by a white, clean-lined, Scandinavian substitute. Benedict would scoff. This is not the point.

Jesus is the point. Grace is the point. Seeking God is the point. Simplifying our lives in an effort to refocus our eyes on the things that matter most is the point. Those things that matter most aren’t experiences but grace, peace, love, mercy, and compassion.

What Benedict realized is what most modern minimalists today often leave out. Simplicity and minimalism lead us to God, not to a more "Instagrammable" life. It is not to lead us to have more money in our pension. It is not to lead us to have more savings for travel and other investments. It is to strip away the very objects and things we fill our lives with that build walls to relating with others.

In my own life I have seen how things and worldly pursuits build walls. A certain item of clothing can send a message to another about what I value in life. A particular experience can make me feel pride about how cultured I am. How much I have in investments (or don’t) can give me the satisfaction about doing life the "right" way thereby creating distance between my brothers and sisters who do not have the same means. And while we often rail against this belief with thoughts like "it shouldn’t matter what others think," or "it is important to be wise and prudent with money," or "you must prioritize self-care," Benedict prescribes otherwise. Benedict includes in his Rule that monastics should not own anything and should abide by certain rules concerning clothing because he knew that things can and do build walls. He wanted the monastics to exude Christ and Christ only. The monastics were to have a life where others saw nothing but Christ when seeing them.

Now Benedict is extreme. The minimalist of all minimalists. As with all the other rules it is important that legalism and piety doesn’t overshadow the simplicity. I am not about to empty my entire house and wardrobe in the name of Benedict. What I do try and remind myself of (and too easily forget) why I have certain things, to what purpose is it serving, and is it distracting me from communing with God? Are the things I own, or the money I earn, or the experiences I desire, preventing me from exuding the characteristics of God to others of different socio-economic status? Many times yes, sometimes no. And thus I reorder my life. I ask God what I need to release, who is in need of a particular item of clothing more than I. 

It’s a little bit like the practice of Lent. By removing the material things that cloud our vision we make space to see the Glory of God more clearly. Existing in this glory is why Benedict was so adamant that his monastics own nothing, distribute items evenly according to need, and only have clothing according to ones basic needs. When we see the Glory of God more clearly, when we make the effort to strip the things of the world away, others end up seeing that Glory too.


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